“Patience and Humility” by Louise DeSalvo
March 15, 2010
Yesterday, in the driving rain, I went to see a training session, followed by a promotion test of the International Association of Shukokai karate, a style practiced by my husband and my youngest son. Chief instructors and instructors from all around the world gathered in Iselin, New Jersey, to train for an upcoming world championship in Portugal this spring. At the sessions, too, were brown and black belts who had trained for years who were eligible for promotion to the next level. After training for several days, at about 3:30 PM yesterday afternoon, those students from around the world who wanted to advance from brown belt to black, or from one degree of black belt to the next, gathered for a strenuous test to determine whether they were ready.
Wherever I go, whatever I experience, I like to see if I can apply what I learn to my writing. And yesterday was no exception. I will get to what I learned in a moment. But first, let me set the scene.
Imagine a ballroom usually reserved for weddings. A garish orange and russet large-patterned rug. Chairs, ranged around the edges of the room where onlookers were seated, watching, reading, knitting, waiting patiently, throughout the day-long event. Hundreds of practitioners of Shukokai karate from all around the world in white gis out on the floor. Women, men, girls boys, ranging in age from, say, seven through seventy-something. One of the four world chief instructors, Shihan Lionel Marinus from South Africa, gathering the group around him, demonstrating a technique. The students and chief instructors watching, intently, their bodies moving to mimic Shihan Marinus’s instruction. Applause for the insights gained, hard-earned over years of practice by Shihan Marinus. A bow to Shhan Marinus. Then the students, running to their positions on the rug to practice the move, and practice it, again, again, again. Instructors, moving round the room to place a hip, pull back a shoulder, place a hand on a back.
I was there to see my son’s promotion test. At beginning of the session, he was a second degree black belt; he was going for his third. My husband also is a student of Shukokai karate, has been for thirty-seven years. They both were privileged to study with Sensei Shigeru Kimura when he was alive. The style continues.
So, imagine this. A day of hard training. It’s the end of the day – 3:30 PM or so, when the promotion test begins. You’re lined up – brown belts in back, black belts in front, in order of rank, highest ranking to the left. Your test begins.
The world chief instructors are sitting on folding chairs facing you. They murmur to the chief instructors the skills they want you to perform. The instructor relays the name of the skill in Japanese – a specific punch; a combination of punches and kicks; and so on and so on and so on. You perform each. Not once, not twice. But thirty times, forty times, faster and faster and faster. Meantime, the world chief instructors are scrutinizing your technique. In the case of promotion from third degree to fourth degree black belt, say, you’ve been training for this day for four years (the requisite time which must pass before a Shukokai student can move up from third to fourth, training, of course, during all those years).
Next, kata – those arrangement of moves that mimic battles. They look to me like powerful dances. The name of the kata in Japanese is announced. The kata is performed. Yesterday, each group of students performed two.
And then. You move back to your lines while the world chief instructors discuss each student. You stand at attention and wait and wait and wait.
Then the moment comes. You’re called out of line to face the world chief instructors to hear their analysis of your technique – they’ve been watching you all during the days of training, and have been scrutinizing your moves during this strenuous two hour test. Your instructor has filled them in about your training, how it’s been going.
They ask you how long you’ve been training; with whom you’ve been training; how many days a week you train; when you were last promoted. They don’t say much, just nod. You move back to your line.
I sat and watched this, watched, I’d say, fifty brown and black belts go through their training session, their promotion test, their moments before the world chief instructors. And while I was taking all this in, hearing again and again, the number of years spent at this practice, the years since the last promotion, the hours devoted each week to perfect a punch, a kick, a kata (perfect is the wrong word; karate assumes there is always more to learn about everything), I thought of my writing project at home, and my attitude to it, and I became ashamed.
I thought about how often I want to get my effects quickly. I thought about how often I want to be done with a page. About how often I approach the desk, not with patience, not with humility, not with respect (all ways of behaving I witnessed all day long) but with that desire that comes over me all too often: to get the damned thing finished, the sooner the better, so I can get on to the next book I want to write. Aiming for the finish line rather than focusing on the practice. That attitude won’t get you your black belt in karate; in fact, if instructors realize you’re in it for the belt, and not for the practice, you’ll be invited to discontinue your study.
There was one moment that made me think of all this. There was a woman, I’d say she was in her late thirties. She was up for her next degree black belt (the world chief instructors murmured, so I didn’t know whether it was second, or third). She stood before the world chief instructors, responded to their questions. She had been practicing, she said, for twelve or so years; it had been four years since her last promotion; she attended class three to four times a week; worked on her technique at home; attended training sessions; attended tournaments also.
I thought of her devotion to her karate. I thought, too, of what it might be like, say, if a writer were only permitted to write a new book every four years – the usual length of time between going for promotion from one level of black belt to the next (not assured, but dependent upon accomplishment within that time). Would a writer become more humble? Would she allow herself all the time she needed to learn a new technique – interior monologue, say; or natural description? Would she give up a driving need to get the work done? Would she respect the work more, respect the time it takes to bring the work to completion? If she knew there was no way the work could be brought to public scrutiny for assessment before four years, would she have an easier time of it? Would her writing practice not be compromised by haste, or the marketplace, or the desire to be in print, the sooner the better?
And what if, instead of thinking of the work as an individual work, the writer thought of her writing life as a continuum, with the promotions not viewed as accomplishments in and of themselves but as steps marking shifts and changes in a lifetime of practice, as the karate students thinks of her life? (Virginia Woolf once said that she liked to think of her life’s work as a kind of long sausage, each link, a piece of work, along a continuum, which is something like what I’m getting at.)
The analogy of writing to karate of course breaks down. Students of Shukokai have instructors; they are taught by some one else; they are practicing an ancient art, one with required moves. There isn’t a place for innovation here, although there is a place for profound understanding and growth — Sensei Kimura never let himself be videotaped because he didn’t want the style to become fossilized (there is only one of him, I believe, on YouTube). Unlike karate practitioners, writers have primarily themselves; they must initiate their own practice; they must invent their own style. So the two are not the same. Still, perhaps, why not think of the possibility of community?
But writing, viewed as practice, not as accomplishment, is something I’d like to think about. And instead of thinking, “I must finish my book in two years,” I just might try this: “You must take at least four years to finish this book.” I think if I do this, it just might provide me with that shift in perspective – that humility, that patience – that I saw exhibited yesterday. Over and over again. I like that. Thinking of the required time which must pass before I can move from one book to another (one belt to another). With our culture’s push to rush works into print – how often have I heard from a writer whose work “hits it big” that their publisher wants a book within a year! – how radical it would be to insist on a certain amount of time, and a long time at that, between books.
My son passed his test. He is now a third degree black belt. When he was awarded his third, the world chief instructors reminded him that he must continue to practice, must continue to devote himself to his art, or his belt would be taken away. Ongoing practice, the key.
We celebrated. And he mused about the years of practice still to come with delight. Knowing that it will take at least four years before he can be promoted again made him feel relaxed, he said. What he now needs to learn will take much time. There is so much more to learn, so much more to unravel, so much more to understand. During the day, he was described to me by a chief instructor as “a man, mad about karate,” willing to devote his life, and all the time it takes, to the art. And so he is. A man who knows that it will take many years to get to the next stage of his practice. A man willing to do so. This is a lesson his mother needs to learn.